Britain can beat Covid variants and avoid more lockdowns with vaccines, says expert

BRITAIN will be able to beat Covid variants and avoid more lockdowns with the help of vaccines, a Sage expert has said.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, who is also the director of the Wellcome Trust, said herd immunity will be possible through widespread vaccination.

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However, he stressed the importance of driving down transmission domestically to beat new variants – which threaten to evade vaccines.

Ministers are confident that the vaccines being used in the UK will protect against severe disease and death caused by current new variants. 

But Sir Jeremy was asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if the UK needs to consider protecting the most at-risk people in society while allowing the rest of society to return to normal.

He said: “I don’t accept that. With vaccination now, an amazing achievement, vaccine task force deserves great credit and the roll-out through the NHS, we can now achieve, we believe, population immunity whereby we will not have to go back into lockdowns.

“We drive down transmission, we vaccinate as many people as possible including I think later this year school children and the whole of the population and that way the whole of the population will be protected, vulnerable people will be protected and we can keep the pressure off the NHS.”

Sir Jeremy said the only way Britain will be safe is if vaccines are shared across the globe to end the pandemic for everyone.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef has said that when countries have vaccinated their health and care workforce and their highest at-risk groups they should share their vaccines.

The UK is just days away from reaching this target, compromising 14 million people. But the Government is aiming to vaccinate the whole population by autumn.

Sir Jeremy said, "we should aim that this is the last lockdown of this level in the UK".

But he stressed the importance of reducing transmission to "much lower than it is in today" in order to avoid a resurgence of cases, as well as new variants, that would spell more restrictions in the future.

Experts have said the lower the number of cases before lockdown restrictions are eased, the less likely it is for new coronavirus mutations to emerge.

Driving down case numbers in the UK is one of the government's four aims in its prevention of new variants strategy.

Every time the virus infects someone it has the opportunity to mutate, and therefore the fewer cases of infection, the less chance it will have to change.

Sir Jeremy said “the new variants are a massive warning the virus is evolving”.

However, he said new strains in the future are “not inevitable” if coronavirus transmission can be driven down to very low numbers.

He said: “If we drive down transmission in this country, if we vaccinate as many people as we possibly can in this country – and critically around the world – we will reduce the number of viruses circulating in the world and the number of variants that can trouble us in the future will be much less.

"The transmission rate is incredibly high still and we’ve got to get it lower, we’ve got to get it – in my view – into the single thousands before we can possibly think of lifting restrictions.

“Setting a date now, arbitrarily, for some date in March or April [to lift lockdown], frankly doesn’t make any sense."

Sir Jeremy said the “biggest threat” in the UK at the moment was the hugely high infection rates – not the importation of a new strain from somewhere else in the world.

He said: “The biggest threat in the UK at the moment is local transmission.

“The border controls may work for a while, they may stop variants coming in.

“But we’ve got a worrying enough variant in the UK – that we think arose probably first time in Kent. That variant is not standing still either, it's also changing and evolving with the changing dynamic of this pandemic.”


It comes after senior Conservative MP Sir Charles Walker, vice chairman of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, yesterday accused the Government of “ripping out” the goalposts on the timetable for lifting restrictions.

But prominent Sage members have argued that relaxing the current restrictions too early could allow more variants to emerge.

They suggest that Brits should "take the pain" of longer restrictions to reduce the risk of mutations prompting repeated shutdowns.

Professor Sir Ian Boyd, of the University of St Andrews, told The Times that early release of lockdown measures "tends to be a false economy because it simply fuels a new wave of disease".

He added: "It stands to reason that the more people there are in the population with infections —- the prevalence— – the more virus that is replicating and the more chance there is of even highly improbably mutations happening."

He said the UK could end up in a pattern of "control and release" due to potentially vaccine-resistant Covid variants.

On Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the fewer new cases of coronavirus there are, the lower the chance of a new variant appearing domestically.

Setting out a four-part strategy to battle new coronavirus variants, he said the work to lower domestic cases was “crucial”.

Lawrence Young, professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, explained: “The more the virus is allowed to spread, the more people who are infected, the more likely it is that this virus will change and evolve and form new variants.

“Variants have been generated in everybody who’s infected, really, at one level or another.

“The more the virus does spread, the more it replicates, the more chances it has to change.”

He added: “One way of trying to put the can on the lid on the number of variants being generated is to try and control the spread of the virus.”

The Government is also bolstering the UK's borders, by introducing mandatory testing and quarantining, preparing to make tweaked vaccines and boosting test and trace.

It comes as the more transmissible variant, first detected in Kent, is now thought to be the dominant strain in the UK.

And there is now clear evidence it is mutating more and has developed a mutation called E484K – which is found in the South African and Brazilian variants.

This mutation is of a concern because it has an ability to hide from antibodies made by the immune system, posing the risk of reinfection and threatening the efficacy of vaccines.

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